Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Northern Vietnam, is a gorgeous landscape of limestone karsts of all shapes and sizes jutting out of the water. Cruising through the area is on most travelers’ Vietnam bucket list, but a quick Google search for Ha Long Bay cruises will overwhelm you with options. It can be a daunting task to choose the right one. Many options are over $100 for an overnight cruise, or close to that for a single-day cruise.
While budget travelers and backpackers will occasionally indulge in slightly expensive must-do activities, that amount of money might be a whole week’s budget in Vietnam. Luckily, while my travel buddy and I were researching our options in our hostel room in Hanoi, a lovely couple who had just gotten back from the bucket list destination offered their advice on how to save a ton of money experiencing Ha Long Bay on a budget, and have a less touristic, more authentic adventure.
Let me break it down for you.
Step 1: Hanoi To Cat Ba Island ($11-$14)
Most of the pricier tours include transportation from Hanoi to one of the many ports surrounding the bay, and the cruise boat leaves from there. What many don’t realize is there’s actually a whole island right next to Ha Long Bay called Cat Ba Island. If you want a less touristic experience, time to explore a beautiful island on your own, and a chance to save money and see the same things as those who pay upwards of $100, starting your journey with a trip to Cat Ba is your best option.
We were easily able to book a bus/boat combo at the front desk of our hostel in Hanoi the day before setting out to Cat Ba by simply telling him where we wanted to go. Most hostels will sell this ticket for a cheap price and will call the booking company for you. If yours doesn’t, I guarantee you can find one down the road that does.
I paid about $11 for my voyage to Cat Ba Island. The price may vary, but should be no more than $14. The bus will pick you up at your hostel, or one nearby and will drive about 2 hours to the port at Hai Phong, where you’ll take a 30-minute speed boat to the North end of Cat Ba. You’ll then get on another bus for about 20 minutes that will take you to Cat Ba Town on the southern end of the island.
Step 2: Book Accommodations In Cat Ba Town For 2 Nights ($10)
When you’re dropped on the main street, you’ll have plenty of options. I had checked Hostel World the day before to see some options, and based on the reviews and the advice of the couple who told us to go to Cat Ba, I booked my friend and me two beds in a dorm room at the Full Moon Party Hotel for $5/night each, including breakfast. The name gives the impression that the vibe would be that of Thailand’s infamous full moon party, so we were expecting a party hostel.
Upon arrival, we found that the name was clearly just to attract backpackers. The place was actually two hotel buildings next to each other that the owners had bought and turned into a hostel-type hotel, connected in front by the outdoor eating area. We showed them our reservation and were told, like everyone in line ahead of us, that there was only one 10-bed dorm and it was over-booked, but that we could have a private room with two double beds for the same price — not a bad deal!
Two nights on Cat Ba Island is all you need — one night before the boat to Ha Long Bay so you have time to book it a day in advance and explore the island, and a second night to sleep after the boat ride before heading back to Hanoi in the morning.
Step 3: Book Your Budget-Friendly Tour To Ha Long Bay ($29)
Book your cruise to Ha Long Bay for the following day at the Cat Ba Ventures office on the main street. I highly recommend the one-day Lan Ha Bay/Ha Long Bay boat trip with kayaking. Don’t get this confused with the half-day option or other full day option, which doesn’t include kayaking (the best part, in my opinion). They advertise a seafood lunch but will ask you your dietary needs when you book and cater to them perfectly.
Step 4: Eat, Drink, And Explore Cat Ba Island ($4-$15)
Depending on what you do for your first afternoon and night on Cat Ba, you could choose to spend just a few dollars on lunch, dinner, and water. You could also spend up to about $15 on all of that plus a motorbike to explore the island, entrance to Cannon Fort with an amazing view of the bay, and a couple drinks at night.
I highly recommend getting a bike to explore, even if you don’t pay to enter the fort. It’s cheap (we paid $7 from one of the places on the main road) and you can see so much. The island is relatively small, so you’ll have time to see beautiful beaches and ride through stunningly green rice paddies where Buffalo still plow the fields. The simple way of life on the island is especially refreshing when coming from busy Hanoi.
Step 5: Cruise To Ha Long Bay!
The main event has already been paid for and includes everything you’ll need for the day (besides dinner). Cat Ba Ventures picks you up at the hotel for the short ride to the docks where you meet your English-speaking guide. You’ll sail past floating fishing villages, stopping to tour one of them, through the less well-known but equally beautiful Lan Ha Bay, out to Ha Long Bay.
In Ha Long Bay, you’ll dock and be able to kayak through incredible, hidden lagoons before eating a delicious lunch on board the boat. You’ll then spend the afternoon relaxing in the sun on the deck, sipping drinks, and making new friends while you sail back towards Cat Ba. There is also a stop to snorkel near a small beach, but the water was far too cold for most people. For most of the day, we were the only boat in site — a much more relaxing experience than the more popular cruises that go only through the main part of Ha Long Bay.
Step 6: Book Your Return Ticket, Spend The Night, And Say Goodbye To Cat Ba ($15)
Once back at the hotel, we booked a ticket back to Hanoi from the front desk at the hotel for about $12, got some dinner at a nearby restaurant, and called it a night after an exhausting but incredible day. In the morning, after a free hotel breakfast, a bus took us back to the docks, where we went back to Hanoi the same way we came and arrived in time for lunch.
Overall, the 2.5-day adventure should cost you between $69-$83, less than a one-night cruise and about the same as some one-day cruises. Besides exploring the infamous Ha Long Bay on a budget, you’ll have the added benefits of not feeling rushed, exploring the beautiful Cat Ba sites, and escaping the hundreds of other tourists and boats heading out from the mainland ports.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
The Diva Cup (+ Diva Wash): Ladies, if you’re traveling for at least a month or during that time of the month, a menstrual cup is a life-saver. You won’t waste precious space in your bag with tampons/pads, you won’t need to find a bathroom every 6-8 hours, and you won’t need to worry about leaks at the beach. The Diva Cup is compact, reusable/environmentally friendly, you only need to rinse and reinsert in the morning and at night, and it never leaks!
Travel Journal: I never travel without my journal. Without it, I would never remember all the facts and history I’ve learned, ridiculous travel stories, the many people I’ve met, or the minute details of my days. If you blog, it’s also especially useful to write down details like names of accommodation, tour companies, costs of activities, or anything else you might forget by the time you get in front of a computer.
LeanTravel Compression Packing Cubes: If you’re like me, your hotel room or area around your hostel bed immediately looks like a tornado hit it once you start to unpack. Travel cubes keep everything in your bag more compact so you can fit more and stay organized. When you unpack at your accommodation, you’ll only have a few cubes sitting on your bed instead of a mess of clothes all over the place.